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By Howard Hardee Wisconsin Watch
Knowing he would probably face fierce criticism, Rohn Bishop raised a dissenting voice while some of his fellow conservatives argued in favor of invalidating votes in Wisconsin.
In a Nov. 21 post on Twitter, he said he’d spent the past decade refuting claims that state Republicans were “trying to disenfranchise people” with voter ID and signature laws. But the campaign of President Donald Trump had gone too far, he said, in legal challenges aimed at tossing out votes during the recounts in mostly liberal Dane and Milwaukee counties. The counting was completed Sunday, adding 87 votes to Joe Biden’s winning total.
“Now here we are, trying to disenfranchise people,” he said on Twitter. “These voters did nothing wrong. There’s no fraud. We’re pushing for a drawdown (in votes counted) based on a technicality!”
As chairman of the Republican Party of Fond du Lac County, he acted in defense of the party’s long-term interests, he said. But as a rare conservative voice rejecting pervasive but baseless claims of vote fraud on social media, he faced an intense backlash from conservatives throughout the state. Those responding to the post have called him a range of names including “useful idiot” — and worse.
“I had 48 hours of where it was — it almost broke me,” Bishop told Wisconsin Watch.
Raised in a Waupun, Wisconsin, household where a photograph of Richard and Pat Nixon hung behind his parents’ bar, Bishop is “all-in on the Republican Party,” he said. After serving a few terms on the Waupun City Council, Bishop got involved with the county GOP during the 2008 presidential cycle and became chairman in 2017. He also regularly contributes to the conservative news and opinion website RightWisconsin — which also has editorialized against Trump.
Bishop believes trying to invalidate votes in Dane and Milwaukee counties harms his party’s brand — not to mention trust in democracy. Wisconsin Watch’s email requesting comment on Bishop’s criticism was not immediately returned by Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
“I’m honestly trying to keep the Republican Party from doing something it’s going to seriously regret,” Bishop said. “By that I mean going into Milwaukee County and throwing out a bunch of African Americans’ votes. I don’t think that’s a particularly good look.”
Wisconsin Watch: You said that you had spent the past decade pushing back against the idea that Republicans were attempting to suppress votes by enacting requirements such as voter ID. What changed?
Bishop: I have no issue showing an ID to vote. You need one for everything else — why not to vote? One of the arguments the Democrats who would oppose this legislation was, ‘You Republicans are trying to suppress the vote. You’re trying to disenfranchise voters.’ My response was always, ‘No, even if you vote wrong’ — I mean, I’m joking — ‘you have the right to vote. You have the same right to vote that I do. I don’t want to take that right away from you. I just want to make sure that when you say who you are, that you are who you are, and that the number of votes and voters all adds up. If I win, great. If I lose, I’ll work harder in the future.’ I still hold that position.
Where I’m upset with the recount effort now is that they’re going after absentee ballots. So, I always vote early in person because it exists and it’s convenient, right? You just go in, you fill out your ballot, the clerk’s your witness, they fold it and put it in the envelope. We’ve been doing it that way for 15 years. And now the Trump people are claiming that technically, by state law, you’re supposed to have to fill out a paper request for that ballot because it is technically an absentee ballot. Well, great, you should have told us that like six months ago because that’s how half the state voted.
Now they’re trying to throw those ballots out in Dane and Milwaukee because those are the two most Democratic counties. If they can get that done, Trump can win Wisconsin because he’ll be throwing out a whole lot of Biden votes. And I just think that’s going too far because that’s not voter fraud and those people who voted did nothing wrong. … I don’t agree with how they voted, but I don’t think they did anything illegal, improper or nefarious — they just went and voted. Throwing out those votes I think is a bridge too far for me, and that’s where I’m breaking with this effort.
What was the reaction like to your Twitter thread?
Monday and Tuesday of this (past) week was a shit show of just hateful stuff coming my way from Republicans who should know better. I didn’t even oppose the president doing the recount because it was a close election and I had no problem taking a second look at it. If it helps voters understand that it was a fair and clean election, I think that’s a good thing.
But this went off the rails now where they’re just trying to kick out people’s votes. So far, from what I can tell, in Wisconsin, they found one fraudulent vote; it was caught by the clerk and the person is facing two felonies. The system appears to have worked. This election is getting a closer look than any other one. People keep telling me there’s all this fraud, there’s all this fraud; I haven’t seen any yet. I’m really open to it, because if there is, I want to clean it up and have a clean election. It’s just not happening. I don’t know what to tell people because I feel like we live in two different worlds: They see an election that was stolen and I just don’t.
Do you think conservatives’ yearlong effort to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the presidential election has done long-term damage to our democracy?
I think so. I’m not an expert in any sense of the imagination, but for whatever reason I started studying more about voter fraud and how the whole election system works. A lot of it is tied into, by coincidence, back in late May, when the president started attacking mail-in voting. I had a tweet that caught a lot of attention, where I pointed out that there is no more evidence of vote fraud with mail-in voting as there is with regular voting. And I pushed back on that because I spent a good chunk of the summer arguing that I want Republican voters who are afraid of COVID to vote by mail so we can get their ballots in. The system works. And we’ve cast so much doubt on it, the Republicans, when they lose an election, they don’t believe it — and that’s not healthy for democracy.
Why do you think more elected representatives in your party haven’t spoken out against these unfounded attacks on our elections system?
They’re afraid. That’s the base of our party, and they don’t want to lose their jobs. I don’t get paid for this job; anyone can have it, honestly. … A lot of them, they’re just hoping this blows over in a couple of weeks, that after January 20 it will just go back to normal. I don’t know if that’s the case.
Where is this push to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote and to discount ballots headed?
I don’t know this, but I think there is a lot of state-elected Republicans who are waiting until Tuesday (Wisconsin’s certification deadline), and when the recount wraps up, the vote is the vote, a lot of them will come out and say, ‘OK, we’ll take a look at absentee voting rules moving forward, and if they need to be tweaked or something, we can do that. But there is no fraud in this election and we need to move on and approve the (Joe) Biden slate of electors at the Legislature.’ That’s where the pushback’s going next. That’s where the Vicki McKennas and David Clarkes are going to turn their attention, is to yell ‘fraud’ and try to get the state Legislature … to send the Trump electors.
Do you find the trend of conspiratorial thinking being normalized by conservative social media influencers such as McKenna and Clarke alarming?
Yes. I don’t know why it’s happening. It’s like the QAnon thing: I had never heard of the damn thing until August. I had a couple of friends who were over at my house in Waupun for a parade, and they were telling me what QAnon is. My friend starts laughing and says, ‘The look on your face is terrifying.’ …
A lot of talk radio is just bullshit. I grew up listening to Rush Limbaugh and learned a lot from him. … When I was a kid, Rush Limbaugh was entertaining. He had the parodies and little skits and spoofs; we could make fun of the Democrats while disagreeing with them. The show was funny. If you listen over the last seven, eight years, it’s just, ‘The Democrats are evil, they’re the enemy, and if they win, we’re a socialist country by March 15.’ When every election is the most important election of your lifetime — otherwise the country’s over — that’s how people get so worked up and believe so much stuff.
How can we stop demonizing political opponents and move forward as a state and union?
It would be nice if we could at least agree on reality; that would be helpful. … We need to have people who are willing to talk to people who they don’t agree with. For all the talk of gerrymandering in Wisconsin, look at that map — Republicans want to live with Republicans, Democrats want to live with Democrats, and we almost never interact. If you want, you can listen to WISN radio, go home and watch Fox News channel, and have Facebook and Twitter friends who only agree with you. I know people who live in that bubble; they have no idea that there’s another half of the country out there that doesn’t agree with them. The same is true on their side: They can listen to NPR — I kind of like NPR, so I don’t mean that as a cheap shot — or watch MSNBC all day and not interact with Republicans. Because you never interact with these people, you can start to believe the crap out there about how evil the other side is, when in a lot of cases they just don’t agree with you.
Howard Hardee is a Madison-based journalist who created a misinformation toolkit for consumers funded by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies. He is a fellow at First Draft, an organization that trains journalists to detect and report on disinformation. Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted, or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.